Crooning: a Collection.John Gregory Dunne.Simon...

BOOK BRIEFS

September 30, 1990|By DIANE SCHARPER My Father's Geisha. James Gordon Bennett. Delacorte. 165 pages. $17.95.

Crooning: a Collection.

John Gregory Dunne.

Simon & Schuster.

287 pages. $19.95. "Crooning," John Gregory Dunne's latest book, showcases his supercharged writing. "Laying Pipe," one of the 16 essays in this collection, explains how much both life and language matter. It also illustrates the substance and energy behind the book. Calling writing "manual labor of the mind," Mr. Dunne describes the four years he spent steadily writing his 710-page novel, "The Red White and Blue." After three years of frustration, the story finally began to move. He likens it to a dream sexual experience where everything feeds into itself: the overheard remark, the chance encounter. The words live.

Whether discussing Vietnam, Hollywood, Israel, the McCarthy era, the Kennedy era or writers and their books, this prose is insightful, penetrating, alive. It's also honest and deeply felt. "Regards," the final essay, shows Mr. Dunne leaving the veterans hospital where his friend and colleague had died. "So many times . . . I wanted to call . . . the only person who would understand . . . what was on my mind . . . what stuck in my throat . . . Regards, regards, and love."

The average American dysfunctional family receives an exceptional look in the first novel of Hopkins writing seminars graduate James Gordon Bennett. A military brat named Teddy endures his sister, Cora -- a movie-magazine junkie and all-round horror -- and his parents, a peripatetic, charming Army colonel and his resentful wife.

The appeal of "Geisha" lies in snappy dialogue as the family miscommunicates at one backwater military base after another. Sometimes Teddy, Cora and their mother remain in the United States while Dad roves Asia and Panama. The children play cryptographer with the slides Dad sends them, remarking on the dark-haired women in the background.

Teddy, at the vortex of parental fighting and slashing sisterly criticism, finds that "nothing that really matters ever gets said between us anyway. . . . There's no use in trying to make intelligent conversation." His solution: a happy relationship with his girlfriend Janice, and avoiding his family. His father's: a geisha, a Saigon-born woman named Sing whom he eventually marries. Cora criticizes the union. "The man is kicking 60. Who does he think he's kidding?" But Janice has a better bead on matters. "Maybe it helps not to speak the same language," she observes.

JEANNETTE BELLIVEAU

Crossing at Ivalo.

Rod MacLeish.

Little, Brown.

279 pages. $18.95.

Jake Yarrow has reached a crossroads in his life. Within months of retirement as a Soviet analyst for the CIA, he has been approached by his wife to attempt a reconciliation after a four-year separation. As Jake tries to assess the changes he is going through, he is handed what may be the biggest case of his career.

On the eve of U.S.-Soviet Strategic Defense Initiative negotiations, Dr. Gregor Mandelbaum -- the architect of the Soviet star wars program -- is kidnapped by a disaffected KGB officer. Mandelbaum is a Jewish scientist who had been trying to emigrate for years. He is to be auctioned to the highest bidder. The Soviets desperately want him back. The Americans aren't sure if they want Mandelbaum but don't want the Soviets to have him. Both American and Soviet task forces are assembled and a worldwide search is begun. Jake is leader of the American team.

In "Crossing at Ivalo," Rod MacLeish, who is a commentator for National Public Radio, has written an intricate and fascinating thriller permeated with complex characters and rich atmosphere. The action is crisp and there are more than a few twists waiting for not only the task forces but the reader. The result is a top-notch book.

BOB BAYLUS

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